Local school district expands program to address student mental health issues

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GRAND ISLAND, NY (WIVB) – As many school districts return to class this week, some schools are emphasizing student mental health.

A local school district expanded a program to help students who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.

From violence at school – to the effects of the pandemic and social media distractions – health experts say mental health issues among young people have reached crisis levels. To start the school year, schools on Grand Island focused on the mental health of all students.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of children struggling with issues such as anxiety and depression due to the impacts the pandemic has had on them,” said Jessica Hutchings, a social worker for schools in Big Island.

To combat the problem, the district brought in two additional providers to offer mental health services.

Child and Family Services and Gateway Longview will work alongside New York’s Horizon Health Services and Mobile Counseling and private practitioners, meeting with students in distress.

“We have agencies that will see our children in the afternoon and evening, it’s quite nice for the parents, it’s not an extra thing that they have to take their child to get out of the island , make an appointment, kids are seen during school,” said Cheryl Cardone, assistant superintendent of student services for Grand Island Schools.

District officials say last year was eye-opening with more than 75 students referred to counseling providers — a big jump from the previous year, which had its challenges related to remote learning. Student discipline cases resulting in superintendent hearings have tripled.

“Over the past few years we have seen an increase in mental health issues from our students including our faculty and staff, obviously our discipline has increased dramatically over the past year, we have superintendent hearings, we’ve had a lot more than we’ve had in the past,” Cardone said. “Because the needs of our students seem to have increased tenfold, the amount of crisis advice, the amount of touch advice, the number of times students need to see an adult during the day, it has really taxed our current staff. “

Not only does Grand Island try to provide students with the help they need, but it also tackles the mental health crisis through the curriculum.

“There’s definitely more talk about it, I think the stigma around mental health is something we’re still working to reduce, but it’s still something you could do more to reduce,” Hutchings said. “I think the pandemic has had a huge impact on kids socially and emotionally. I think a lot of what we’ve seen is kids have forgotten for a while how to socialize properly with their peers and they’re in somehow had to relearn that behavior.”

With the expansion of the program, at least one mental health service provider is working every school day in Grand Island schools. The district says it is always looking to expand these services.

The district says its Parent Wellness series will return this school year in person.

Meanwhile, in Orchard Park, the city and school district have come together to open a Family Solutions Center which will focus in part on the mental health of school-aged children.

Jeff Preval is an award-winning presenter and journalist who joined the News 4 team in December 2021. See more of his work here.

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